You can’t fail to notice that it’s almost a hundred years since the First World War began and already this year we’ve seen several exhibitions and TV shows examining this significant event. Niall Ferguson played devil’s advocate with some of our leading historians, while Jeremy Paxman tried to tell us about the effects of the war on modern Britain…except he forgot that bit and chucked in two minutes at the end. The excellent 37 Days screened over three nights on BBC2 dramatised the political build-up to the war in the UK, Germany and Russia, and many hundreds of hours of television are yet to be screened. The upshot is that there’s a danger of feeling exhausted by the end of the commemorative period in 2018, you may even feel it already and a hundred years ago the war hadn’t even started yet.
That’s not to say that the things being produced are unwelcome, and have so far been of great quality and balance. The National Portrait Gallery’s new exhibition is an excellent example of this, walking you through the events of those years using many of the paintings and images already in its collection. You begin with the pomp of regal portraits celebrating the monarchical houses that dominated Europe in 1914 including Britain’s King George V, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm and Russia’s Tsar Nicholas. They represent the old order, of formal oil portraits celebrating the power and grandeur of royal courts, illustrious histories and military might that seemed, from these pictures, that they would endure forever. On the next wall is an unassuming black and white photograph of Gavrilo Princip the man who assassinated the Austrian Archduke, and, in some sense triggered the downfall of that way of life. There’s something quite chilling about seeing photos of Franz Ferdinand and his wife not long before their deaths. But, as this exhibition shows, their deaths were just the beginning.
Once war has begun, we’re shown two types of picture. First the formal portraits of military leaders like Haigh and Hindenbugh painted by official war artists. Although they lack the grandeur of kings in the previous room, they are intended to convey a sense of the sitter’s authority and leadership role. William Orpen painted Haigh in 1918 and I couldn’t help but think had he sat a few years earlier, it would have been a different image. The styling is as you’d expect, but whatever your opinion of Haig, look at his eyes, there’s a sadness in them that hints at the terrible toll of the last four years. Whether that’s Orpen’s addition is for you to decide.
Alongside these images we see representations of the ordinary serviceman presented both as formal glory portraits to celebrate their victories, and as the dead or disfigured on the battlefield and hospitals. These include the incredibly striking Dead Stretcher Bearer which is simultaneously a moving and somehow beautiful image, casting a stark contrast with the formal portraits of war leaders. Changes in artistic styles are represented through pictures including the angular forms of Nevison’s La Mitrailleuse (The Machine Guns), emphasising the mechanisation and fierceness of war. One of the things I enjoyed most about this exhibition is the inclusion not just of these many styles and consequences of war, but of all kinds of protagonists; it’s not just monarchs and Generals, but ordinary men; not just soldiers but pilots, sailors and men from across the Commonwealth. Apart from Chruchill and a couple of photographs, the naval experience doesn’t really feature which is a shame, but NPG is saving them for a naval exhibition in May.
Before you become desensitised to the plethora of First World War activities, go and see this free exhibition. Not only is it a great opportunity to see a really diverse collection of art styles, but it will give you a surprisingly broad perspective of all the people who fought in the conflict as well as mix of bravery and horror that created. If you want to understand anything about the lasting effects of the Great War, then all you have to do is look in Haigh’s eyes.
The Great War in Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery until 15 June and is free to enter.